Origins of the "Scotch-Irish"

by Don Silvius

I have often heard that many of the early settlers of the Shenandoah Valley were "Scotch-Irish", but I have never quite understood the meaning of that term. Were they a product of Scotch-Irish marriages? And if they were, did that many Scottish choose Irish spouses? Being a descendant of the Campbells of Scotland, I decided to find out what the term "Scotch-Irish" really tells us about the origins of our ancestors.

The "Scots" for whom Scotland is named were a small group of warriors who originally came from Ireland (circa 500 A.D.). The difference in their Gaelic language was only a matter of dialect, or accent, since racially the Irish and the Scots are Celts. The Highlanders (as my Campbell ancestors were) used to go often to see their Irish cousins and help them fight the English.

Many Scots went from Scotland to Ireland, and some came back - many left Ireland later for North America. The Scottish people who went to Ireland before 1560 were Catholic, as was all Scotland up to that point. They became indiginous to Ireland. Some Scots went to Ireland as a result of "Plantations". "Plantations" were political "power plays" by the King or ruling class to balance the power in their favor. Whenever conditions in Ireland became unfavorable to the King, he would simply offer land grants in Ireland to families (in Scotland "clans") who supported him, thereby balancing the power in Ireland to his favor. Since the lowland Scots have traditionally been loyal to the King of England, they were a good choice to help turn the tide in favor of the King. Scots who were only tenant farmers in Scotland were offered their own land to farm in Ireland, and the poorer class, who had no land to farm at all in Scotland, were offered tenant farms in Ireland.

In 1555, there was a treaty between the Earl of Argyll (Scotland) and Calbhach O'Donnell of Tirconnell (Ireland) in which Argyll was paid 400 Scots marks to provid men and artillery. Therefore, at this time, a majority of Scots in Ireland were mercenaries. Both the English and Irish forces probably gave employment to Scots.

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth, there were three Irish rebellions. Each time "plantations" occurred, effectively diluting the opposition with loyalists. Until the end of the 1600's the land was shifted back and forth as the political climate changed. The largest Ulster Plantation was early in the Reign of James VI. James used his authority to repress the Irish, confiscating lands of the Irish Catholics and granting those same lands to Presyterian Scots.

After 1690, when James was defeated by William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne, Parliament declared that all of James' legislation regarding Ireland was illegal and much of the land changed hands again. During this time, many Scots came to North America.

From 1717 until the American Revolution, over a quarter of a million Scots-Irish came to North America from Ireland. These "Scots-Irish" were mainly Presbyterians who had moved from the west coast of Scotland to Ulster (Northern Ireland) from 1600 to 1700, and had retained their Scottish identities. They moved from Scotland because of increasing rents that forced them off their farms, available land in Ulster, and oppression of the Presbyterians in Scotland.

They arrived in Pennsylvania and New England, and many paid their way by becoming indentured servants for 4-5 years. After serving their time, they moved to the frontier, which at this time would have included the Shenandoah Valley. Since the reasons they left Scotland and Ireland were primarily due to government intervention, they were very quick to join the Revolutionary army. After 1775, most emigration was to Nova Scotia and other British colonies. There was no significant Irish Catholic emigration until the famine in 1840.

So if your family is "Scotch-Irish", your ancestors (1) originally lived in Scotland, (2) were probably Presbyterians, (3) lived in Ireland for a generation or two and (4) probably came to North America between 1717 and 1775.

Return to Shenandoah County GenWeb Project

Originally published at An Appalachian Country Rag December 1996
Created March 29 2001
Updated April 14 2006
© 1996 - 2006, Don Silvius